Senior Living: How the Trailer Park Could Save Us All

A healthy, inexpensive, environmentally-friendly senior living solution for housing millions of retiring baby boomers is staring us in the face: time to rethink the trailer park.


| September/October 2013



Trailer Park Community

Notoriously underloved, manufactured-homes can provide organic communities and a lifestyle that is healthy, affordable, and green, and not incidentally, fun. But in order to really see their charms, we need to change a mix of bad policies and prejudice.

Photo By Arnaldo Abba Legnazzi

Residents call life at Pismo Dunes Senior Park “Pismodise.” Park manager Louise Payne calls it “a holding tank for the great beyond.” Louise has short hair and blunt bleached bangs that give her the air of a preteen skateboarder, but at 72 she’s often found rolling by the park’s 333 trailers in her electric golf cart, alternating between her roles as mother hen and whip-cracker. California is a notoriously youthful culture, but eventually the perpetually young get very old. If they’re lucky enough to live in Pismodise, which is on the Central Coast, they can exit its palm-lined entrance, cross the road, amble across the capacious sand of Pismo State Beach, and dip their toes in the Pacific Ocean while contemplating eternity (or a cocktail).

To move into Pismodise you must meet four conditions: Be 55 or older, keep your dog under 20 pounds, be present when guests stay at your home, and be comfortable with what most Americans consider a very small house. “If you need more than 800 square feet I can’t help you,” says Louise with a shrug. There seems to be some leeway on the dog’s weight. The unofficial rules are no less definite: If you are attending the late-afternoon cocktail session on the porch of Space 329, bring your own can, bottle, or box to drink. If you are fighting with other residents, you still have to greet them when you run into them. Make your peace with the words “trailer trash.”

No one in California aspires to be old or to live in a trailer, but we need to be more open to the possibilities inherent in both. Every day since January 1, 2011, some 10,000 American baby boomers have retired, and that will continue until 2030, when people over 65 will make up 19 percent of the population (up from 13 percent today). Old is the new boom and it is changing the culture and the conversation. In Washington, D.C., anxiety about the decreasing proportion of workers to retirees underlies the frenzied discussion of “entitlement reform.”

Baby boomers aren’t going to retire the way their parents did. They are poorer and more likely to live alone. They can’t depend on pensions, and the real-estate bubble destroyed almost 50 percent of their wealth. Today one in six seniors lives in poverty, and that proportion is rising; the generation of Americans now facing retirement is so financially ill-prepared that half of them have less than $10,000 in the bank. The coming swell of retirees will strain our current system to its limits—in terms of not only health care, but also incidental things like road signs, which are hard for drivers over 65 to read in a majority of American cities and towns.

Emily Greenfield, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work, who researches elder-care networks, says a change is occurring under our feet, whether we see it or not: “Baby boomers have critical mass—they’re covertly revolutionizing society again” as they retire.

One of the biggest questions facing the nation with regard to aging boomers is: Where are they going to live? The options amount to a tangle of euphemisms and politically correct titles: independent living, nursing homes, aging-in-place, naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs), retirement village, memory-care units, age-restricted communities. All this complexity disguises a simple fact about money, happiness, and aging: Seniors who can live on their own cost the country relatively little—they even contribute to the economy. But those who move into nursing homes start to run up a significant tab—starting at $52,000 a year. People who are isolated and lonely end up in nursing homes sooner. Hence, finding ways to keep people living on their own, socially engaged, healthy, happy, and out of care isn’t just a personal or family goal—it’s a national priority. Among seniors’ living options, there is one we overlook: mobile homes. Time-tested, inhabited by no fewer than three million seniors already, but notoriously underloved, manufactured-homes can provide organic communities and a lifestyle that is healthy, affordable, and green, and not incidentally, fun. But in order to really see their charms, we need to change a mix of bad policies and prejudice.